The educational responsibility of Sustainability

There are industries in which it is difficult to promote #sustainability. They are the “mature” industries, or the very traditional ones, where cultural change hasn’t yet arrived and where the wind of #climatestrikes isn’t blowing strong enough. But blowing it is.

I was recently visiting a brick production factory and was being shown around by the Quality manager. While I was illustrating to him the differences between the #ESIndex and the Quality approaches, due to the peculiarities of sustainability, a salesperson passed by and overheard our conversation. He stepped in, obviously skeptical and quite aggressive saying: “that’s not for us: our clients don’t care about it, they don’t even know what it is. They want no frills: just the best price and it’s already a hell of a job to satisfy them”. He went his way, fuming with frustration from hundreds of fruitless meeting along the years, without caring for any response to his statement.

For a few seconds I stood silent, taken aback by the unexpected, rude interruption. Then a crystal clear awareness came: the man had expressed the dilemma burdening thousands of salespeople and their departments. They struggle every day with making their sale budgets, facing old fashioned customers living in the XX Century and hoping that the world will go on as usual forever. The guy meets masons, builders working for greedy developers who don’t care about anything but the bottom line of their projects. This is people who don’t have the time to look around and see the change coming. Or don’t want to take that time because they fear that dealing with change could be painful and prefer to live in a blind, hopeless hope.

One day, they will wake up to learn that millennials and later generations don’t buy houses anymore, they rent and share. They will learn that old style inefficient buildings, in overbuilt and overdeveloped areas don’t sell anymore, that efficiency and healthy, sustainable materials are those that people want to be surrounded by. Perhaps material’s Passport (see TurnToo® project) will be mandatory for every building.  And more “surprises”. They will wake up to a deserted market and realize that their time is over. 

What does this imply for the brick maker today? How can they resolve the conundrum? If their customers are not heeding to the winds of change, will they die too one day? Do they have a responsibility and the consequent power to act? 

Yes they do. Sustainability is not a set of management procedures like any other management system. It is a different way of seeing the role of an organization in relation to its context. As it is in ISO 26000:2010, the overall responsibility of a Company is to contribute to Sustainable Development and to do so with its every activity. Sharing knowledge is part of the responsibility. Sharing knowledge and awareness of the changing times, I’d say. It’s on one side an educational responsibility that the more aware have towards the unprogressive. On the other side it is what we could call a long term business strategy that is all in the interest of people like our friend the salesperson, for as much as he can think it unlikely. 

It is frequently the case that larger companies have more access to information and awareness of the trends in society and markets. They have more resources to invest in knowledge development and research. They have also more people and if they allow fruitful interaction within, they will have a thriving forward-looking inner context that is naturally at the frontline of modernity. Such companies have a responsibility to educate their stakeholders, in the case we are dealing with it is their customers, about the direction society and the markets are moving. Indeed they have long done this driving the unsustainable economy!

Therefore, while the salesperson has all my sympathy for the hardships of his job, I’d tell him that he has to spin sustainability in the interest of his clients because this will prepare them for the evolution of their own customer base. Anticipating the evolution of markets is the best service that a supplier can do to customers, all the while supporting them in their more immediate needs. This is not of course the sole responsibility of the salesperson. 

All the Company shall support this effort. Research, development of new materials and the diffusion of information about new technologies are the “logistics” of such “campaign”. The transition to sustainability is not an easy one, In some industries it can be a hard and tough job. However, we have examples of industries that were very “dirty” at the beginning becoming sustainability champions, like Interface. This was a highly oil intensive industry that in a little more than 20 years has become a frontrunner in sustainable business, acting as a role model for many other companies worldwide. Education has ben among its responsibilities from the beginning, internally and externally. It has brought them a lot of advantages. Hence my conviction that education is a primary responsibility entailed by the sustainability pursuit.